OTTAWA – Canadian bureaucrats pondered using the personal “brand” of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to sell the world on the merits of the country’s return to peacekeeping, The Canadian Press has learned.
Using the prime minister’s personal appeal was seen by senior foreign ministry officials as one of the possible “framing” techniques for explaining Canada’s decision to devote more military resources to United Nations peacekeeping operations.
Documents obtained through Access to Information detail the early government planning to reboot Canada’s return to peacekeeping.
Once a traditional role for the Canadian Forces, it was all but abandoned in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States when the military focused on counter-terrorism and war-fighting in Afghanistan.
Trudeau promised during the 2015 federal election that Canada would focus more on UN peace operations, and the government has since committed 600 troops and $450 million to an as yet unspecified mission or a combination of deployments.
In January, officials at Global Affairs Canada – the newly renamed foreign affairs department – convened a day-long strategy meeting with government officials and experts on how to turn that promise into policy.
VIDEO: PM Trudeau explains what Canada would seek in peacekeeping mission
Documents for the meeting said the first session focused on “Framing the Canadian engagement.” They said participants would try to “identify ‘filters’ or lenses through which Canada’s contributions to UN-led, or UN-authorized peace operations could be viewed.”
The documents listed eight possible “frames,” including “Building on ‘Brand Trudeau’. There is significant enthusiasm at the global level for the messages conveyed by the Prime Minister. Canada could capitalize on this enthusiasm by investing in inclusivity, including through a robust National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security.”
An expert on the use of branding in politics says there’s nothing new about successive governments trying to imprint Canada on the international stage.
But what’s new is how Trudeau has become a personal brand, and how public servants embraced that in their peacekeeping discussion, said Alex Marland, a political scientist at Memorial University in St. John’s, N.L., and author of “Brand Command.”
Marland said the upside is it draws attention to Canada’s policies on a crowded world stage – an argument Trudeau himself has advanced. But focusing too much on one person – the prime minister – may have implications for parliamentary democracy.
“What are you supposed to do? Spend billions on advertising to get them to pay attention to Canada, or is it easier to use Justin Trudeau’s Twitter account?” Marland asked.
“But the more attention that we pay to the prime minister as an individual, the more power is concentrated in that person.”
All of that raises the spectre of too much power concentrated in the Prime Minister’s Office, and the “reduced relevance of Parliament as an institution,” he added.
“And these are the exact things that the Liberal party of Canada was concerned about in the election campaign.”
Trudeau addressed that criticism in his year-end interview with The Canadian Press, suggesting the brand belongs to Canadians as a whole, not just him.
“What I’m seeing around the world is that Canada is looked at as a place where people are smart and get it and have good values,” he said.
“So that uplifting of Canadians and what it is that we do well, diversity being a strength, being part of it, is, I think, where the brand is making the biggest impact on the world stage.”
Trudeau noted the issue of Islamophobia has surfaced in Canada as it has elsewhere.
“I reassure people on the world stage that Canada is not somehow some magical land where the same forces as there are elsewhere simply don’t exist.”
In separate interviews, two of Trudeau’s most-travelled cabinet ministers – Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion and Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland – said their boss’s personal brand has made their jobs easier. Both said it has helped them push the merits of pluralism, women’s rights and universal rights.
VIDEO: What’s the future of Canadian Peacekeeping?
“It opens all the doors,” said Dion, adding he mentions Trudeau near the top of every speech just to remind people he is “part of the same gang.”
Trudeau’s personal appeal is connected to long-held Canadian values and goes to “the heart of our agenda,” said Freeland.
She said it will “attract investment, will attract wonderful immigrants from around the world, generating a lot of jobs and growth for middle-class Canadians. So I think there is a very virtuous circle.”